Free to Explore, Free to Fail
by Jack Wald | June 9th, 2002

Galatians 3:15-25

This past week I was talking with Darrel Pack, a pastor in Casablanca who preached here just a few weeks ago. He asked me if I remembered the first sermon I ever preached and I remembered immediately the illustration I used but had to think a bit more until I remembered the text from which I preached. I preached from II Corinthians 2 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. The illustration I used came from The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien and I will share that with you in a few minutes.

Illustrations and images tend to stick in our minds longer than points in a sermon so this morning I want to share with you some images to help you and to help me remember the arguments Paul makes in this letter to the Galatians.

The first image could be titled  Free to Explore and comes from a quote of Tolstoy in his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You. Religious systems, said Tolstoy, tend to promote external rules and regulations. The focus of Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam is on a set of external rules. Obey these rules and then you have the self satisfaction of being righteous.

But Jesus brought a different approach and in this passage I’m about to read, Tolstoy points out the distinction between the approach of Jesus and all other world religions. You can read along with me in your bulletins.

The test of observance of external religious teachings is whether or not our conduct conforms with their decrees. [Observe the Sabbath. Get circumcised. Tithe.] Such conformity is indeed possible.

The test of observance of Christ’s teachings is our consciousness of our failure to attain an ideal perfection. The degree to which we draw near this perfection cannot be seen; all we can see is the extent of our deviation.

A man who professes an external law is like someone standing in the light of a lantern fixed to a post. It is light all around him, but there is nowhere further for him to walk. A man who professes the teaching of Christ is like a man carrying a lantern before him on a long, or not so long, pole: the light is in front of him, always lighting up fresh ground and always encouraging him to walk further.

The first part of what Tolstoy says is that a focus on externals is restrictive because I am always checking my list to make sure I do what I am supposed to do. The writer of Hebrews wrote that we are to fix our eyes on Jesus but someone who follows a religious system with external rules fixes his or her eyes on the regulations.

Tragically, you can see this clearly with those who have transformed a relationship with Christ into a religious system that must be followed. A living relationship with Christ for such people is transformed into a list of things we are supposed to do and things we are not supposed to do.

Living faith becomes an obsession, making sure I always do the right thing, making sure I never disobey, an obsession with being perfect.

The Jews did this as well with over 600  laws added to the Ten Commandments. So they criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, for allowing his disciples to pick grain as they went through a grain field on the Sabbath. Minor details became a major preoccupation and they forgot the more important things. The focus was so much on the law that they missed seeing Jesus as the Christ.

So Jesus spoke to them:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

World religions and those who have taken a relationship with Christ and reduced it to a set of external rules suffer together. The focus is always on the rules.

The Christian, the true Christian who is a follower of Christ, does not follow a set of external rules but focuses instead on a relationship with Christ.

A follower of Christ does not focus on the things he or she did right in a certain day because the things we do right are not to our credit. We are not more loved because of the good things we do. There is no keeping an account of our good and bad deeds and behavior. When we accept the free gift of salvation from God, the account book is closed. Christ died for our sins and we are now set free to live. A follower of Christ does not keep track of how he or she measures up to the rule book. The follower of Christ focuses on Jesus. The follower of Christ seeks to deepen his or her relationship with Christ.

And as we grow in our experience of the love of God, as we grow closer to Christ, our imperfection, our failure to be perfect becomes apparent. As Tolstoy wrote, we see the extent of our deviation from Christ.

So when Jesus told Peter to cast his nets out in the sea, after Peter had fished all night and caught nothing, and the nets were filled with fish, Peter got down on his knees and said to Jesus, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man.”

When Isaiah had an experience of the holiness of God, his response was to say, “I am a man of unclean lips.”

Paul, after spending a lifetime with Christ revealed the depth of his experience with Christ by saying in his letter to Timothy, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.

The closer we come to Jesus, the more clearly we see our imperfection and consequently our deep need for Jesus. This is the mark of Christian maturity and growth.

A religious system that follows a set of rules is a dead religion. The rules do not change. It does not move. It does not grow. It does not develop. It is dead.

As Tolstoy points out in his image, the light sits there, anchored to a post. It takes you nowhere.

To follow Jesus is to put the lamp on a stick and set out on an adventure. Freedom! No longer a prisoner! Free to explore!

This is the illustration from the Hobbit that I have shared before in this church, which I used the first time I preached and want to share again.

Gandalf, the wizard, comes to invite Bilbo, a Hobbit, to come on an adventure.

Bilbo is sitting outside his very comfortable home, smoking his pipe and blowing beautiful smoke rings when Gandalf appears.

“Very pretty!” said Gandalf. “But I have no time to blow smoke rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.”

“I should think so — in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them,” said our Mr. Baggins, and stuck one thumb behind his braces, and blew out another even bigger smoke-ring.

This is the invitation given to us when we enter into a relationship with Christ. This story is a wonderful invitation for us to leave behind a life of comfort and respond to God’s call to come out in the world with him. It is an invitation to explore and if you have read The Hobbit, you will know that our Mr. Baggins did set out on a perilous adventure that transformed him into a stronger and better person.

To follow Jesus, as states a saying I have on my wall in my study, is to know the rules are fair and there will be many surprises. We follow one who is not predictable. We follow one who leads us into adventures. We take our lamp and set out to who knows where.

Abraham set out from Ur to Canaan. Most of us have set out on an adventure to Morocco. But we also have daily adventures. We wake up and pray that God will help us to be open to the adventures he gives us that day.

Don’t trade this wonderful freedom for a religious system. Don’t take the Law and make it your focus. Keep your eyes on Jesus and set out on a daily adventure with him.

This adventure we set out on leads to the second image which could be titled Free to Fail. I used this image in a sermon a few weeks ago, but thought it would be good to give it a bit more focus.

If you are walking with a friend and at the beginning of the day decide to set off in a slightly different direction, just one click of the second hand of a clock, and walk in that direction for just one day (24 miles or 38 kilometers), do you know how far apart you will be at the end of the day? Guess. At the end of the day you will be 2.5 miles or 4 kilometers away from the friend you were walking with that morning. Even halfway through that day, you will not be able to see your friend.

This is astounding and makes a great image for us to consider. When you think of your relationship with God, think about walking along with Jesus. Each morning when you wake up, you begin another day of walking side by side with Jesus. And it only takes a very small step of disobedience to cause us to drift away from Jesus.

When we walk with Jesus we do so because we are focused on him. We make decisions based on what will please him, not ourselves. Jesus modeled this for us when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemene the night he was arrested. Remember what he prayed? Not my will but your will be done. That is how we walk with Jesus. In each decision we make, each word we speak, each action we take we say, Not my will but your will be done.

So we start our day with Jesus determined to walk alongside him that day. But then as you set out on your way to work, a car cuts you off and you yell and make gestures of an unpleasant sort and determine you will pass him and cut him off at the next light. All of a sudden, you are heading off in a different direction than Jesus is going. You are insisting on your rights and forgetting the teaching of Jesus to love those who do evil to you.

Our day is filled with choices in which we determine whether or not we will walk alongside Jesus or whether we will set out on our own.

I have had many conversations in which someone will tell me they are having a hard time spiritually. Sometimes they talk of evil spirits bothering them. Sometimes they talk about their problem as a feeling of deep unease or unrest. I ask them if they are doing anything that would be considered to be offensive to Jesus. I ask them if they are living to please themselves or to please Jesus. And there is silence. It is clear that they have made some decisions that have caused them to walk away from Jesus.

When you make a choice to assert your rights, to do what you want to do without regard to God’s will for your life, it can be expected that you will have feelings of deep unease or be bothered by evil spirits.

When you set out in a path of disobedience, don’t be surprised that you are not accompanied by God’s peace.

Let me be specific. There are many ways in which we live for ourselves and not for Christ and in each case it is because we want something and are determined to have it at any cost.

I may want to immigrate to another country but cannot get a visa to go to that country. So what do I do? Someone tells me I can go and do not need legal documents to get into that country. Doing this will involve paying bribes and smugglers. This is a moment of decision. Will I walk with Christ or will I set off in my own direction?

I received an email from a man who used to be part of our community and then left illegally to Europe. He wrote me to say that nothing has been going well for him since he left Rabat. Why should this be a surprise?

We cannot expect to pursue our own agenda without paying the price for it. We can choose to walk with Christ or to walk in our own direction.

A businessman is desperate to earn money to pay his debts and someone offers him some business if he will only give a little bribe money. Will that businessman walk with Christ or go his own way?

You meet someone to whom you are very attracted. You may be married or that person may be married so to follow through on the attraction would involve adultery. What are you going to do? The attraction is mutual but you need to make a choice. Will you continue walking with Jesus or go your own way?

You have the opportunity to get a promotion at work but it involves taking advantage of a co-worker to get the promotion. Will you mistreat your co-worker to benefit your career? Do you want to walk with Jesus or go your own way?

What we read, what we eat, what we daydream about, what we say, how we treat those around us, all these things are points of decision when we decide if we will walk with Christ or go our own way.

It doesn’t take much. Just one click of a clock puts us far away from Christ. And the danger is that as we continue to step away in our own direction, we gradually forget about God and later claim that he has disappointed us or that he cannot be found.

As we walk with Jesus we will drift away. We will assert our own rights. We will choose to live for ourselves. None of us will be able to walk with Christ without deviating. We are sinners who fail God over and over.

But the grace of God is such that we can always look again and see in the light of his love our failures. We can always repent and turn. We can always seek forgiveness and receive it.

A Christian is one who is aware of his or her failings and corrects his or her course to come back alongside Christ.

No matter how far away you are from Jesus you can always return. We are free to fail. As you look around as you walk and discover that you are not walking alongside Jesus, that you are 2.5 miles or 4 kilometers apart, you can correct your course and come back alongside Jesus.

We are free to fail. Our sin does not drive us permanently away from Jesus. We can always come back to walk alongside Jesus. We can always return to the path.

And what is so wonderful is that Jesus longs for us to come back to him. Jesus stands by the path searching for us, longing for us to come back and races to embrace us when we return. When Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son with the Father standing by the road and straining to see his son and then running to greet him and celebrate his return, he was speaking of his own searching and pursuing love.

We are free to fail because we walk with one who loves us and forgives us.

Melanchthon was a contemporary of Martin Luther. He was a brilliant man and a partner with Luther in arguing for justification by faith alone. He was also a man who obsessed about the tiniest details of obedience in his relationship with Christ and to Melanchthon, Luther gave some advice which is easily misunderstood when taken out of context.

Luther told him to love God and sin boldly.

Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to be bold in living for him. There will be times when we fail, but we need not fear failure. We are not punished for failure. We can step out and make mistakes and then come back to walk alongside Jesus, having learned from our mistakes. We do not follow a stern taskmaster checking off on a list all our good and bad deeds. We follow a master who loves us and longs to see us grow in faith. Making mistakes, failing is an inevitable part of that process.

When we enter into a life with God, we enter into an adventure. We should not be timid adventurers.

When you get an urge from God to say something or try something or do something. Step out and do it. The worst that can happen is that you will fail and look like a fool. That’s not so terrible.

I remember one service in which healing was part of the message. As I prayed about the passage, Phil List kept coming to my mind. For those of you who are new, Phil developed MS and had to leave Morocco to go back to the US just a few weeks ago. In the passage we were studying, Jesus was very straightforward and told people they were healed. So as I prayed I got the conviction that if Phil came forward for prayer, I should tell him God had healed him. Phil came forward and I said, “In the name of Jesus you are healed.” But then nothing happened and as time went on, Phil’s condition worsened.

Phil continued to get worse and I felt like a fool but that’s OK. It’s OK to step out and try something and failure is not the end of the road.

Some are paralyzed by decisions because they are so afraid of making the wrong decision. Don’t be so afraid. What is the worst thing that could happen? You make a mistake and repent and come back walking with Jesus.

Listen brothers and sisters in Christ. We are on a grand and glorious adventure. Open your eyes and mind and heart and embrace all that God is offering you. Don’t hold back. Don’t be timid. Don’t be afraid. Lean forward into the future you have with God.

You have nothing to fear. Because of what Christ has done for you, you are free to explore and free to fail. You cannot lose. You are safe in the arms of your Savior.

What adventure is God calling you to? What calling of God are you resisting? As you sit comfortably by your house blowing smoke rings, is God inviting you on an adventure? Don’t resist. You are free to explore and free to fail. Get up out of your comfortable chair and begin walking with Jesus on your new adventure.

You shall go out with joy and be led forth with peace.